A Ugandan leader who supports one of the most draconian anti-gay laws in the world will soon be presiding over the United Nations General Assembly.
Sam Kutesa, foreign minister of Uganda, will become president of the general assembly next week; just four months after his country enacted a harsh round of discrimination laws that propelled a violent climate widely condemned by global leaders – including the UN’s own secretary general and high commissioner for human rights.
The African Union elected Kutesa by “acclamation” without casting a single ballot after he was the sole candidate up for the year-long post, The Guardian reports. And though Kutesa’s influence will be widely ceremonial – the position rotates annually between five geographic regions and holds little power – the UN is fielding concerns that the leader is marred by allegations of corruption and supports laws that directly undermine the core values held by the world body.
“The United Nations’ mission should remain focused on bringing the world community together rather than embracing divisiveness and intolerance,” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a statement ahead of Kutesa’s election, urging the UN to raise Uganda’s human rights violations with the foreign minister. “It would be disturbing to see the foreign minister of a country that passed an unjust, harsh and discriminatory law based on sexual orientation preside over the UN General Assembly.”
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni raised eyebrows in February when he signed a string of harsh anti-gay measures – known as the “Kill the gays bill” – into law. The measures bolstered already existing anti-gay laws with harsh penalties that could land a person in prison for life, just for entering a same-sex marriage. Meanwhile anyone caught sheltering gay people from detention could face years in prison as well.
Just hours after Museveni signed the law, the UN secretary general called on the country to repeal it. The UN high commissioner for human rights warned the life sentences “could fuel prejudice as well as encourage harassment and violence.”
In response to the backlash, Museveni stood in defiance of western ideals toward greater equality. During an interview with CNN, Museveni even called homsexuals “disgusting.” Kutesa has not gone as far in his rhetoric against LGBT activity. According to The Guardian, Kutesa has said “the majority of Africans abhor” homosexuality, that it’s “wrong for our young people” and “offends our culture.”
As Kutesa’s UNGA inauguration draws near, a change.org petition topping 5,000 signatures continues to swell. The Ugandan foreign chief will be at the helm of the general assembly when world leaders – including President Obama – will gather for its annual session in New York starting in September. Activists are calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to revoke Kutesa’s visa and prevent him from serving in his new role.
Such a move however would be unusual. As the activists behind the petition point out, the White House refused to issue a visa to Iran’s pick for UN ambassador after the U.S. found out the nominee played a role in the 1979 hostage situation at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. It is believed to be the only time the U.S. refused a visa for a UN envoy choice, BBC reported.
The State Department on Monday declined to comment on Kutesa’s appointment. However, the U.S. has made clear its opposition to Uganda’s wave of anti-gay laws enacted this year. President Obama called them a “step backward” that would complicated relations between Uganda and the U.S. Kerry made waves in February by comparing the Ugandan laws to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany or South African apartheid.
Kutesa fired back against corruption allegations, noting that he has never been convicted in court, according to The Daily Monitor. He urged naysayers “not to squabble” over his general assembly presidency and that the issues of corruption being raised “have no basis,” The Monitor reported.
A spokesman for the president of the UNGA declined to comment on Kutesa’s election, saying it was a “member states driven process.”
Homosexuality is currently illegal in at least 37 African countries. Prior to the Ugandan law Museveni signed earlier this year, homosexual acts could carry up to 14 years to life in prison, a throwback from anti-gay laws from the colonial-era. The measures fall in line with public sentiment, as 93% of Ugandan polled believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable, according to a Pew poll.